Huntington's "Jungle Book": Can Wild Animals Be Captivating?

Once upon a time, in a land not far away, there lived a wonderful magician, and her name was Mary Zimmerman. Not long ago, she helmed a production of “Candide” for the Huntington Theatre that was the finest piece of theater seen in these parts in decades. She has now returned to the Huntington stage as the author and director of a brand new version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book”, based in part on the Disney animated film of the same name. It became perhaps the most eagerly anticipated production of the current season, with many questioning how storytelling about a boy brought up by animals in the wild could possibly captivate a sophisticated audience in these more cynical times. One need not have feared. Zimmerman, her seemingly bottomless bag of theatrical magic intact, has done it again.

With a terrific cast of nineteen and an amazingly versatile orchestra of twelve (and more about that later), there is much for one’s senses to absorb. From the first appearance of the diminutive young hero Mowgli (Akash Chopra), in his astoundingly poised professional debut, to the panther Bagheera (the fabulously sinuous Usman Ally), the tiger Shere Khan (the majestically sinister Larry Yando), the python Kaa (the sensationally sibilant Thomas Derrah), the unforgettable elephants Colonel Hathi and Lieutenant George (the vaudeville-inspired Ed Kross and Geoff Packard), the lovely Peacock (the stunning Nikka Graff Lanzarone) and the brief but pivotal role of Little Girl (Glory Curda), this is a cornucopia of marvelous star turns. They’re supported by a chorus who are not your usual somewhat anorexic ensemble, but actually look like real people, uh, that is, animals, wonderfully choreographed by Christopher Gattelli (a Tony winner for his recent work on another Disney venture, “Newsies”).

After a slightly sluggish start, the show comes alive with the welcome appearance of a bear named Baloo (Kevin Carolan). Carolan, in an amazingly clever costume, is adorable and hysterical at the same time, providing some much-needed feeling, with his growing platonic-but-heartfelt bromance (dare one call it bearmance?) with Mowgli. His arrival, with his showstopping “Bare Necessities”, is soon followed by the marvelous entrance of King Louie (Andre De Shields), head of all the monkey business. In his own showstopper, “I Wanna Be Like You”, De Shields somehow manages to devour every piece of scenery in sight, shamelessly (yet successfully) mugging his way through a fabulously choreographed tap dance where the only human is barefooted and all the monkeys are in tap shoes. These two production numbers are the highlights of the first act, which even at fifty-five minutes could use a bit of trimming and a touch more of that heart provided by Baloo. At the end of this act, a father and his daughter left the theater (probably because she was only five years old), having seen a good show, which was a shame, for if they’d left at the end of the second act, they’d have seen a magnificent one.

Contrary to the usual norm, this piece of musical theater has a second act that transports the work to a level rarely experienced. This time, a fifty-five minute act fled by, propelled by non-stop theatrical bliss. It’s a truism that many a musical rises or falls on the strength or weakness of its music and lyrics. This score, by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, with some new lyrics for two of their songs by Richard M. Sherman, is already beloved by many who have embraced the film over the years, and is very well served here. The music and lyrics for two of the songs, from an earlier proposed treatment of the film version, are by Terry Gilkyson (“Kalaweeta, Kaliana” and the popular “Bare Necessities”), and the music and lyrics for one new number, “Jungle Rhythm”, are by Lorraine Feather and Paul Grabowski. The resulting seamless amalgam is a delight, ranging from blues to swing to jazz, and even barbershop (in a particularly memorable number by a hilarious quartet of vultures).

The orchestra, all attired in colorful turbans and “sherwani” coats, frequently leaving the pit to take part in the onstage action, played numerous instruments, some familiar and some exotic. Yes, another musical score (with fascinating orchestration by Doug Peck) featuring sitars, dafs, veenas, flugelhorns, dholaks, ghattams, dhols, dumbeks, and tablas. Not since that other Disney musical about the king of another jungle in another part of the world has there been such an intriguing treat for the ears, enhanced by the complex sound design by the trio of Joshua Horvath, Ray Nardelli and Andre J. Pluess; and a treat for the eyes, for the exquisitely beautiful costumes by Mara Blumenfeld, the strikingly effective light design by T.J. Gerckens, and the gorgeous sets by Daniel Ostling are, to coin a word, awesome. Ostling is especially creative in the opening and closing scenes, both very cinematic, which bookend the fantasy; his final simple, silent, surreal scene is one that will linger in the hearts of theatergoers for years to come. It’s a miracle of stagecraft. The only miracle remaining is how one gets one’s hands on a ticket once word gets out about how this sublime work takes flight, and takes us along for the ride. The answer to the question as to whether wild animals can be captivating is yes, they Shere Khan.


Central Square's "The Other Place": It's a Mystery

The current offering at the Central Square Theater (a co-production by Nora Theatre and Underground Railway Theater), Sharr White’s “The Other Place”, was first produced off-Broadway in 2011 and subsequently (a full two years later) in White's Broadway debut, when it was nominated for a Tony Award in the category of Best Actress, although it lasted just sixty-one performances. As directed by Bridget Kathleen O’Leary (Associate Artistic Director at New Rep in Watertown) and starring Debra Wise (Artistic Director of Underground Railway Theater) as the main protagonist, narrator Juliana Smithton, it’s obviously intended as just that, a star vehicle. The story centers on Smithton, a Boston-based drug company scientist who is certainly a complex character. Married to a famous oncologist Ian (David DeBeck) with whom she had a daughter Laurel (Angie Jepson) who was intimate with one of her mother’s former colleagues, Richard (Jaime Carrillo), she attended a pharmaceutical conference in the Virgin Islands to speak about a new drug she has discovered for the treatment of a form of dementia. Treated herself (for what she fears is brain cancer) by Dr. Cindy Teller (also played by Jepson), she finds her own intelligence is her greatest asset and her largest burden. Along the way, there are mysterious revelations that don’t really prove to be very revelatory, as we begin to comprehend what’s really going on here. A theatergoer with any sense of irony will see the punch line coming a mile away.

Other plays have dealt successfully with women coping with various manifestations of illness (such as stroke in “Wings”, ovarian cancer in “Wit”, or mental instability in “Proof”). In this very brief work (just ninety minutes without an intermission), White ends up juggling one too many plot points. It’s a challenge to a reviewer since it depends on many gradual contradictions that can’t be discussed, even though most audience members should see, not long into the play, exactly where it’s going. They surely will, if they’ve been paying attention to several clues dropped fairly frequently, and, unfortunately, quite obviously. What eventually transpires at the end of the play comes as no surprise, since it’s been telegraphed all along. In the end, what seemed all too transparently predictable is just that. Even the title serves to help give away the secrets the playwright thinks he has successfully withheld.

Fortunately, this production has a lot of positive aspects about it, starting with O’Leary’s expert direction and the radiant acting by Wise and her co-stars, especially DeBeck as her understanding husband, backed up by Jepson and Carrillo in multiple roles. The technical crew contribute some very atmospheric elements, from the clever Set Design by Janie E. Howland to the Lighting Design by Chris Brusberg and the Sound Design by David Remedios.

All of these professionals, on and off stage, are working at the top of their form. It’s a tribute to both theatrical companies that they almost succeed in overcoming the fundamental flaw of a mystery play with very little mystery. The true mystery is why anyone would consider this a work worthy of being produced.


SpeakEasy's "Tribes": Can You Hear Me Now?

SpeakEasy Stage Company’s season opener, “Tribes” by Nina Raine, is compelling in so many ways, not the least of which is how it compels us to “hear” with our eyes. First produced in London in 2010 (with an Olivier nomination for Best Play), it had a lengthy run Off-Broadway in 2012 in a stellar production directed by David Cromer (remembered for his directing and acting in Huntington Theatre’s recent revival of “Our Town”), earning six Lucille Lortel nominations, as well as the 2012 Drama Desk Award for Best New Play. As superbly directed here by M. Bevin O’Gara (whose work last season for SpeakEasy‘s terrific production of “Clybourne Park” was so memorable), it not only opens the season but also our eyes, our ears, and ultimately our souls, with an impact that cries out to be seen, heard and felt to be believed; in its beauty and truth, it is unmatchable, unforgettable, unmissable.

The play is the story of an extremely dysfunctional family whose method of communicating their love for one another is through rather intense and almost hostile discussions. Its youngest and, at least initially, quietest member is Billy (James Caverly), who although born deaf has been raised in his hearing family as though he were exactly like them; for example, he knows nothing about sign language. His curmudgeon of a father, Christopher (Patrick Shea), is an acerbic academic critic prone to pontificating (“making deafness the center of your identity is the beginning of the end”) and sarcasm (referring to sign language as “broken English”). His slightly more sensitive mother Beth (Adrianne Krstansky) is preoccupied with writing a detective novel about a marriage breakdown. His sister Ruth (Kathryn Myles) is an aspiring opera singer performing in strange venues like church halls and pubs. His other sibling Daniel (Nael Nacer) is a neurotic underachiever who is writing a thesis about the worthlessness of language, ever ready with criticism of others, referring to opera goers as “a bunch of people listening to something they don’t understand and feeling vaguely emotional and pleased with themselves…a bit like being drunk”, living with frequent voices in his head and anti-depressants in his system. Into this insular cocoon steps Sylvia (Erica Spyres), a woman Billy has just met, who is the daughter of deaf parents, and is now losing her own hearing. How she is received by Billy’s family, one tough tribe to crack, as well as the hierarchical tribe of the deaf community (which Christopher derides as “like any sect, built on exclusion”) is the focus of the first act of this brilliant work.

The second act is a stunner, which won’t be described here lest some of the extent of its intensity be diminished, other than to note that both Billy and Sylvia are profoundly changed, one becoming more and more confident, the other becoming less and less so. Caverly, with his extraordinarily expressive face, is mesmerizing, and Spyres is an astounding force of nature. Shea and Krstansky battle as often and as brutally believably as George and Martha in “Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, and Nacer shows yet another facet of his seemingly effortless versatility (as in recent regional productions “Our Town”, “Kite Runner” and “Lungs”). Only Myles is left with relatively little to convey, as her character comes across as least sympathetic in Raine’s writing. Raine has, however, provided much to feast upon in the rest of her writing. She asks us to hear exactly how we hear, both in silence as well as in speech, as we listen passively and aggressively or not at all, as a family or other groups of people with a common culture that threatens to define them. Like any significant playwright, she exposes us to worlds we didn’t know existed, such as the class distinctions in the deaf world, with people who are born deaf and use sign language at the top of the pyramid. Without being preachy, her play deals with the politics and psychology of being born deaf or gradually going deaf, as well as the deaf community’s place in society at large. In the case of Billy, who reveals to his family that he has been treated as their mascot, it’s an even more profound examination of his identity and his reinvention of himself. More broadly, Raine deals with how each of us can fit in with a group if we’re still struggling as individuals. At more than one point in the play we as the audience are suddenly made to feel deaf until something is interpreted. As Raine has stated elsewhere, she wants us to confront ourselves with the question of what choices we would make if our children had been born deaf, and whether we would be emotionally deaf as well.

In SpeakEasy’s production, as with the original off-Broadway version, the play is presented in the round, and in so doing something is lost and something is gained. For extended periods, some members of the audience are unable to see the facial expressions of some of the cast. On the other hand, intimacy for such a work is indispensable, and no theatergoer is more than five rows from the stage. This presents a real challenge for Scenic Designer Christina Todesco, Lighting Designer Annie Wiegand and Projection Designer Garrett Herzig, but all of them are up to the task. Also in top form is the (obviously) essential Sound Design by Arshan Gailus, with its meticulously chosen music ranging from the Queen of the Night’s aria from “Magic Flute” to “I Want to Be Like You” from Disney‘s “Jungle Book” to the exquisitely appropriate irony of the finale, the humming chorus from “Madame Butterfly”.

In the end, although some of the members of Billy’s family appear to be terminally self-absorbed, there is a lot of love in their tribe, albeit oddly expressed. As Raine has also stated, the fact that “people make mistakes is really the point”. Sometimes they do so out of an excess of protectiveness, sometimes possessiveness, sometimes obliviousness. But at the roots of every tribe there is that elusive need not only for feeling love, but also for communicating it, something at which this playwright has been profoundly successful. Ms. Raine, we hear you.


Trinity Rep's "Grapes of Wrath": The Milk of Human Kindness

Trinity Rep’s fiftieth season opener is “The Grapes of Wrath”, adapted in 1988 by Frank Galati for the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago from John Steinbeck’s book and dedicated to his widow Elaine. Subsequently it was produced on Broadway and won the 1990 Tony Award for Best Play. Starring a then-unknown Gary Sinese as Tom Joad, the recently paroled member of the Joad Family, it was their story of being kicked off their land by the bank and their 1938 trek from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California. Though reluctant to leave (because “a feller gets used to a place, it’s hard to go”) they are forced to pull up roots and head for the promised land of employment opportunity. As the first
Narrator puts it: “The corn could go, as long as something else remained…women studied the men’s faces secretly…to tell whether this time the men would break”. And break they did, at least as far as keeping up any hope of remaining on the land they had once made fertile. As the character of the former preacher Casy says about their shared hopelessness: “the spirit ain’t in the people much no more… maybe all men got one big soul everybody’s a part of” (which Tom recalls later near the end of the play). It‘s only “when they’re all workin’ together, that’s holy”. As in Steinbeck‘s novel, much of the meaning of their plight is expressed by Casy. When he observes that theirs is a one-way migration, he marvels that “it’s like a whole country movin’ (west)”. Along the way, there are many hints of dire conditions at the end of their travels, deaths of both the elderly and the newborn, and a whole lot of denial. But Ma Joad remains steadfast (“It ain’t kin we, it’s will we?”) and never looks back at the farm, as “it’s just the road goin’ by for me”, that is, not the past and not the future, only the present matters.

This play is a perfect choice for Trinity Rep to start its fiftieth season, both because of the company’s depth of bench (in its true repertory of players) and its versatile venue. It’s clear from the moment one enters the theater to the music of the seven-piece band known as “3pile” (composed of Brown University students Ben Grills, Nikki Massoud, Ted Moller, Alex Curtis, Matt E. Russell, Sherri Eldin and Zdenko Martin) that this is a novel approach to the novel, beginning with Martin’s spiel to the audience about exits and cell phones. Each one of these multi-talented singer/actors play supporting roles in the work, and all are splendid. The meatiest parts are impeccably played by very familiar members of the resident company, headed by Stephen Thorne (Tom), Anne Scurria (Ma), Joe Wilson, Jr. (Casy), Richard Donelly (Pa), Jessica Crandall (Rose of Sharon), Fred Sullivan, Jr. (Uncle John), Janice Duclos (Granma) and Stephen Berenson (Grampa). They’re joined by two newly added resident members Charlie Thurston (Muley) and Mia Ellis (Mrs. Wainwright), both of them welcome indeed. Rarely do we get the opportunity to see this huge company all play together, and it’s a treat for us as much as it appears to be for them. Although this is a successful team effort, one would be remiss if mention weren’t made of the sublimely controlled power in Scurria’s performance that breaks our hearts, and the complexity in the creative evolution of Thorne’s central role that nourishes our souls.

Director Brian McEleney elicits fine performances from the entire cast, choosing to let his actors (rather than, as in previous productions of the play, effects like troughs of water, fires and working automobiles) convey the strong message of taking care of one another. He has described his vision as interior storytelling about music, poetry and people, with the folk-rock songs composed by students Eldin and Martin as a counterpoint to the story. The sets (designed by Michael McGarty) are minimalist, often constructed by the cast in the style of productions of “Nicholas Nickleby”, “A Man of No Importance” or “Les Miserables”. The lighting design by John Ambrosone keeps us focused on each cast member as she or he carries the plotlines, enhanced by the complex sound design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz. All of the technical effects combine to help advance the tale of the troubles of the Joad Family, the emergence of Tom Joad’s social consciousness under the influence of Casy, and the plight of migrant farm workers (then and now). McEleney’s choice to keep it simple and utilize contemporary music is a brilliant one, as it makes a classic literary source seem all the more relevant.

As Ma puts it, “us people will go on livin’ when all them people is gone…we’re the people that live…we go on”. As they reach their goal of the California fruit farms, Tom adds “we sure ain’t bringin’ nothing’ with us”, and that his “grandparents wouldn’t’ve seen it, it’s for the youngsters who are really seeing it”, but he’s partly wrong. Men see life as a series of jerks, Ma pronounces, whereas women see life as a flowing river. It takes a while for Tom to see this, in the iconic words “Whenever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there…Whenever there’s a cop beatin’ up on a guy, I’ll be there…and whenever our folks eat the stuff they raise and live in the houses they build, why, I’ll be there”. As the play ends, Rose of Sharon offers the sacrifice embodying the milk of human kindness in the most profoundly moving scene. Steinbeck’s title (a reference to “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and its Old Testament sources about the wickedness in the world) is ironic, in that he emphasizes the valiant, often fruitless, struggle of good people. This wondrous production echoes the somewhat clumsy (yet both simple and profound) grace before a meal voiced by Casy. He (and we) should be “glad that there’s love here”.


"Elephant Man": New Rep Packs This Dermis with Wit

New Rep’s season opener, “The Elephant Man” by Bernard Pomerance, directed by Artistic Director Jim Petosa with many of the actors from his memorable last season closer “Amadeus”, is a reminder that if you believe that beauty is only skin deep, this play’s not for you. It also serves as witness to the wit and wisdom of this winner of the 1979 Tony, Drama Desk and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Awards as Best Play. Based on the life of Joseph Merrick (1862-1890) in London (and, briefly, Belgium), it explores society‘s treatment of those people who are different, or at least appear to be, and are consequently either categorized, ostracized, or institutionalized. The fact that it takes place in England in the Victorian Era by no means lets us off the hook, as even a superficial review of health care priorities today would prove. This is a work that, in the right hands, plays much more hauntingly than it reads on the page; it is one of those works that a director and her or his team of actors can make soar.

In this production, the words on the page do indeed take flight, for they are unquestionably in the right hands. The incredible experience that Petosa and his team of actors and technical crew created last spring is equaled if not surpassed here, starting with the astonishing performance by Tim Spears (last season’s Mozart) again in the title role of the physically deformed young man. When he cries out “sometimes I think my head is so big because it is full of dreams”, it’s a truly heartbreaking moment, as we see clearly what his contemporaries by and large did not. His apparent rescue from exploitation by Dr. Treves (Michael Kaye, also wonderful) is merely the beginning of more subtle and insidious treatment. As his first carnival “manager” Ross (a very believably creepy Joel Colodner) describes his new “home” at London Hospital, it is a milieu that exemplifies “places cruel to life are the most revealing scientifically”. When Merrick asks “I have a home? As long as I like?” and is told “that is what home is”, he at first fails to see the hypocrisy afoot. Later in the play a wiser Merrick asks “if your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”, and is told by his protector Treves that “rules make us happy because they are for our own good”. As Merrick finishes constructing a model of the nearby St. Philip’s Church, he states “I make an imitation of an imitation….we are all just copies? of originals?…who made the copies?…He should’ve used both hands”, evidencing a level of intelligence most of his contemporaries missed. And, in the most revealing moment in the play, in a dream of Treves, roles are reversed and Merrick analyzes Treves: “…as a boy (he) developed a disabling spiritual duality, therefore was unable to feel what others feel, nor reach harmony with them…thus denied all means of escape from those he had tormented”. It’s a fabulously heightened theatrical moment, an unforgettable one.

Spears as our seemingly unlikely hero is surrounded by a versatile, extraordinary cast, all of them (except Spears himself) in multiple roles that display the breadth and depth of the local talent pool. Valerie Leonard is terrific as Mrs. Kendal (and one of the Pinhead Sisters), as are Russell Garrett as Carr Gomm (and a train conductor), Esme Allen as Miss Sandwich (and Princess Alexandra and a Pinhead Sister). The aforementioned Colodner also shines in the additional roles of Bishop Walsham How and Snork. In several supporting roles (Lord John, the manager of the Pinhead Sisters, a policeman and Will), with suitable regional accents for each of his characters, Ross MacDonald also stands out. All of their work is enhanced by the atmospheric musical accompaniment by oboist Louis Toth. The technical crew all added substantially to the overall wonder of this production, from the ingenious Scenic Design by Jon Savage (not an easy job given that the play consists of twenty-one scenes), complex Costume Design by Molly Trainer and Lighting Design by Daniel Maclean Wagner, effective Sound Design by David Reiffel, and the musical accompaniment by Toth (playing music beautifully composed by Reiffel).

At the close of the play, Treves is asked if he has anything to add to Merrick’s obituary after his inevitable early death. When he has one (unexpressed) belated thought, he is told : “It’s too late, I’m afraid. It is done”. By this time, the audience has been transported to a level of theatrical perfection rarely seen. As each well-meaning character expresses how “very like me” Merrick was, we come to realize that, beneath the skin, it is not Merrick but all those around him (and, by extension, we as well) who are carrying baggage. It’s a triumph for all who contributed to this marvelous, flawless production.


Lyric Stage's "One Man, Two Guvnors": Give a Little Skiffle

Lyric Stage’s first production of the current season (its fortieth year of bringing great theater to Boston),“One Man, Two Guvnors”, gets the fall theater schedule off to a rousing start. Based on the classic Italian commedia dell’arte play by Carlo Goldoni, “A Servant of Two Masters”, this is a surprisingly faithful adaptation by Richard Bean, even down to its frequent asides to the audience, with most of the original plot left intact. (It’s no wonder the Tony Awards committee argued over its decision to consider it an original play or a revival; they opted for the former, but really should have chosen the latter). When it was first announced as Lyric’s season opener, the news was met with decidedly mixed anticipation. Farce, with its rigid demands for precision, timing and tone, is extraordinarily difficult to pull off, and oh so easy to ruin. Happily, in the ever capable hands of Producing Artistic Director Spiro Veloudos and local treasure Neil A. Casey in the lead role, farce has survived intact. Some may compare this work to the like of “Noises Off!”, but its closest kin might well be the inspired zaniness of the British television series “Fawlty Towers” at its faultless best.

With its mistaken identities, gender switches, pratfalls, and other such tricks of the slapstick trade, the play defies synopsis without giving away too much of its inherent pleasures. Casey, as the scheming “one man”, Francis Henshall, serving two employers simultaneously, appears to be having the time of his life in this role of a lifetime. His juggling of the overlapping duties and interconnected love stories of the play must be seen (and not described) to be enjoyed. He’s ably surrounded by a terrific cast that includes his two “guvnors”, Stanley Stubbers (Dan Whelton) and Crabbe (McCaela Donovan), a pair of star-crossed lovers named Pauline Clench (Tiffany Chen) and Alan Dangle (Alejandro Simoes), their fathers Charlie “The Duck” Clench (Dale Place) and Harry Dangle (Larry Coen), and the hysterically funny long-in-the-tooth waiter Alfie (John Davin). Their names alone are fodder for fun, worthy of that other fine British playwright Alan Ayckbourn as are other characters with such monikers as Lloyd Boateng (Davron S. Monroe) and Gareth (Harry McEnerny V), as well as a barman (Chuong Pham) and a policeman (James Blaszko). There’s also yet another standout performance as the manager Dolly by the incredibly versatile Aimee Doherty, who also plays a mean set of spoons.

It‘s about those spoons. They‘re a staple of popular British musical performances known as “skiffle”, which is music (jazz, country, folk, and other genres) using unusual instruments such as spoons, jugs, kazoos, washboards, ukulele, harmonica, steel drums and the like. With some fifteen numbers (written by Grant Olding specifically for the show and actually released on a CD), this could easily be considered as a musical. (Ah, let us once again pity those Tony Award committee members). They’re played and sung by members of the cast and a live, visible band under the direction of Catherine Stornetta. The technical elements are all cleverly on the money, including the Scenic Design by Matthew Whiton, Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, and Sound Design by Andrew Duncan Will.

As noted above, it’s so tempting to take slapstick and run with it; it takes real discipline and practice to do physical comedy without giving in to the natural inclination to overdo. Kudos are due to this cast and its creative team for delivering such low comedy on such a high level. The play may take a rather lengthy time for the set-up, but the pay-off is well worth it.